Joan Leigh Fermor as a photographer, as opposed to a handmaid to male writers, has long been something of an enigma: the claims made for the quality of her work were hardly borne out by its limited publication during her lifetime. The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover by Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart (Haus Publishing 2018) attempts lift her from comparative photographic obscurity, to unwarp the enigma.
This handsome well-produced volume includes: 177 plates (nine in colour) showing 204 of Joan’s photographs, a short, 80 page, biography by the authors; and 30 other illustrations, some Joan’s photographs. Eight of the plates show pictures of bomb damaged buildings in London; the majority of the other pictures were taken in and around the Greek islands and mainland with a bare handful from Turkey. A Foreword by John Craxton (originally a 2003 obituary) introduces Joan; there is a note on technique by Robert McCabe; and some interspersed quotes from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (Paddy) writing. Publication coincides with an eponymous exhibition at the Museum of Greek Culture, Athens, running from 23nd May to 21st October 2018.
I tried to shed some light on Leigh Fermor’s photography in my post of 22nd November 2017. This drew heavily on the then recently published biography, Joan – The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor, by Simon Fenwick, and concluded that, photographically, ‘Joan remains a vague, if attractive, muse to the men who so often dominate the story Fenwick tells’. My post of 23rd June 2018 added a little more colour to the story from a recent publication and exhibition featuring Paddy and the cultural world in which he worked. The new book provides an opportunity to review previous conclusions.
A Photographic Life 3
Collins and Stewart’s treatment of Joan’s photographic life covers much of the same ground as Fenwick, sometimes giving more and sometimes less detail of her work and practice. There are several additional elaborations of her photographic activity, however.
John Betjeman’s An Oxford University Chest was published in 1938 with photographs by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. According to Collins and Stewart, ‘Joan supplied four published images … best of all a soaring view over Nicholas Hawksmoor’s cupola on the High Street façade of Queen’s College. She clearly caught the Surrealist mood then affecting the English avant-garde…’. The other three photographs are of the interior of the Divinity Schools and the Colonnade at Magdalene College. The four are credited to ‘Miss Joan Eyres Monsell’
In August 1939 Joan travelled to Tunisia with her new husband, John Rayner, and visited her brother Graham. Photographs of ‘traditional cave-like houses of the south Tunisian village of Matameur’ from that trip appeared in a repot ‘Unit Planning in Primitive Architecture’ in the July 1940 edition of the Architectural Review.
Joan’s photographs of ‘Chelsea Old Church, bombed’ and Zwemmer’s damaged bookshop window appeared in the June 1941 issue of Horizon. The latter picture ‘was presented as a kind of Guernica opposite an editorial by Cyril Connolly calling for international unity against rampaging [fascist] evil’.
In 1945 Joan travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Fenwick says, ‘she took photographs and made notes in her diary, which she used for writing a long account of her journey into the mountains of Rowanduz, with the apparent intention of publication’. According to Collins and Stewart, ‘she returned that summer to Dumbleton with rolls of splendid pictures of landscapes and life in a Middle Eastern caravanserai’. (Fenwick’s coverage of this was omitted in error from my first post.)
In a quite different vein, in May 1951 Joan was on a yacht cruising around the Aegean and the Peloponnese with Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton, Thomas Hart Fisher, Ruth Page, Frederic Ashton, Costas Achillopoulos and Margot Fonteyn. Joan’s informal and intimate photographs recorded the trip and included a beautiful study of Fonteyn lying naked on deck. Most of these pictures were discovered only after Joan’s death.
The 1950s saw Joan and Paddy travelling around remote rural Greece. Patrick recounted some on this, including the tale of a search for Lord Byron’s slippers in Roumeli (1966). Joan photographed the elusive slippers, according to Collins and Stewart.
The Leigh Fermors were close friends of Lawrence Durrell and frequently visited him in Cyprus in the 1950s. Durrell’s book Bitter Lemons (1957) records his time there during the troubled years of Enosis and the emergence of EOKA. Collins and Stewart report that Joan illustrated the book, saying: ‘None of the photos is credited and most are minor illustrations. One image, however soars above the rest: a crisply sympathetic portrait of the hodja (teacher) in the Mosque of Hazaret, Omer. It has all the hallmarks of Joan’s art’. In addition to the portrait of the hodja, there is a decent portrait of ‘Clito in his tavern’, which is consistent with Joan’s approach. The other photographs, possibly by Joan, are eight thumbnail portraits.
Turning to equipment, Robert McCabe’s note confirms my suggestion in the first post that Joan used a Rolleiflex for much of her photography. McCabe revives unnecessarily the old debate about 120 v 35mm formats, but the former suited Joan’s way of working and she managed the format admirably, despite her reservations stated in the earlier post. She subsequently used 35mm – an Edixa and a Nikkormat – mainly to keep a record of building the Leigh Fermors’ famous house in Kardamyli.
Collins and Stewart put 1960 as the date when Joan stopped taking photographs, probably due to a combination of factors: no longer the need to earn extra money; effective completion of the work that contributed to Paddy’s books; and being passed over as the photographer for a book on Paris by John Russell. However, Joan’s marriage certificate still recorded her as a photographer in 1968.
An Appreciation 3
The plates and illustrations of Greece in The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover show her covering a wide range of subjects, including landscapes and coasts, buildings and monuments/ruins, towns and villages and markets, people at work and at rest, adults and children, and sometime curious details. She is good at capturing buildings in their wider settings and putting them into context. She captures the quiet unspoiled emptiness and the magical light and shade of 1950s Greece. At her best she can bring out these qualities in her portraits, though her touch is less sure. As I have said before, you do not feel she is fully engaging when she photographs groups of people, she appears to stand back and the groups can look posed and stilted. (Her pictures of Paddy and friends suggest what she was capable of when she was at ease with her subjects.)
In depicting that Greece of the 1950s her photographs are a significant, if partial, historical record – pictures of boat building on the beach epitomise the sense of a lost world. She has an eye for what is important in achieving a sense of timelessness, a timelessness that follows Paddy’s vision and the tenor of his books. She does not capture any sense of the impact of the civil war in Greece from 1944 to 1949 and its aftermath in the 1950s, however.
Her visual perception of what is important is shown in the pictures of bomb-damaged London buildings, where telling details add context and depth. The formality of her approach contrasts with the chaos of the destruction and she captures a terrible beauty.
Joan also had an eye for a well-composed picture and had the ability to make the best use of the sometimes constraining square 120 format. Many of the pictures in the book are presented full frame and they work very well; a few are cropped and in her published work this happened quite frequently. Presenting the pictures as full-frame squares has a certain purity to it as that is how Joan saw them, but many would undoubtedly benefit from cropping, as the examples here show. Apparently Joan did mark up some contact prints for cropping, but the failure to be more radical about this may be a reflection of the fact that she never printed her own work.
Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of cropping, the big advantage of the 120 format is the clarity and evenness of tone that coped so well with the light of Greece. At the prosaic, but important level of technique, Joan managed to produce sharp accurately exposed negatives that stood up to commercial processing to maintain a good range of shadow, mid and highlight tones. This was a significant achievement given the conditions under which she worked and the lack of any formal photographic training. The colour plates do not reach this standard and serve only to tell us that Joan occasionally used colour film (without success).
Joan, whether as Eyres Monsell, Rayner or Leigh Fermor, was not working in a vacuum. Her career, 1934 to 1960, coincided with a rich period photographically, embodied in publications like Life (1936-72) and Picture Post (1938-1957). So, what, if any, were the photographic influences on her? Collins and Stewart suggest that she may have been drawn to the ‘straight’ landscape photography of Ansel Adams; and ‘If she had female role models they might have been …Berenice Abbott … Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White…’. But there is no direct evidence for any of this. They note that her coverage of Pare Lachaise included photographing Gerda Taro’s tomb designed by Giacometti, though this may have been coincidental rather than an act of homage to Taro.
The other photographer whose name crops up is Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, with whom she shared picture credits in An Oxford University Chest. Simon Fenwick says that Joan went to a surrealist exhibition in Paris and to an exhibition of work by Moholy-Nagy in 1935. Moholy-Nagy’s pictures in An Oxford University Chest are very conventional, not in the style that is normally associated with him, and Joan’s pictures do not look out of place beside his. Despite the assertion that, in the Queen’s College picture, ‘She clearly caught the Surrealist mood then affecting the English avant-garde’ there is little in her subsequent pictures to suggest any lasting influence from Moholy-Nagy.
It seems that the greatest influences on her work were not other photographers, but the writers and artists with whom she spent most of her life.
The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover undoubtedly helps in unwrapping the enigma and putting her on a firmer footing as a photographer. The quality of the plates serve to prove the case that, during her lifetime, she was not well-served by her publishers in the number of pictures used, the selection of what was used and the quality of reproduction (and nor is she well-served by the low resolution images on this blog, for which apologies). Collins and Stewart also confirm that Joan was probably her own worst enemy in treating her photography casually; and ‘she believed in his [Paddy’s] work more than she did in her own’, indeed her work in Greece appears to follow his vision rather than hers. Moreover, like many photographers at the time, she did not enjoy the full respect of her peers as a creative artist in her own right (see post 23rd June 2018). The show at the Museum of Greek Culture is the first exhibition of her work. We are now able to make a better assessment of her skills and creativity as a photographer and she emerges as a more significant figure.
But we still only have partial picture, partial in both senses of the word. The book, linked as it is to the exhibition in Athens, concentrates almost entirely on and celebrates Greece. We still see nothing of Joan’s other photography: Ireland (at least two trips), London cemeteries, Pere Lachaise, the Caribbean, travels in France, the fire dancers of northern Greece, Iraqi Kurdistan, genoa, Tunisia. There is much more to see; more work to be done unwrapping the enigma.
Photos: 1. Cover, The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor, 2018; 2. Hawksmoor’s Cupola, Queen’s College, Oxford; 3. Margot Fonteyn, 1951; 4. The Hodja of the Mosque of Hazaret, Omer; 5. Delphi, Greece; 6. Tigani Peninsular, Mani, Greece; 7. Nafplio, Greece; 8. Patmos, Greece; 9. Echinos, Greece; 10. Kitta, Mani,Greece